Film Review: THE DESCENDANTS
the Descendants - USA - ****
Cast: Amara Miller, Beau Bridges, George Clooney, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Michael Ontkean, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Shailene Woodley
It's been seven years since Sideways, Alexander Payne's bruise cruise around California wine country with Paul Giamatti's sad sack prof and Thomas Haden Church's arrogant actor - a role for which George Clooney lobbied, but was rejected as too big a star. What's Payne been up to in the meantime? Definitely mellowing, if his latest is anything to go by. As well as featuring Clooney, The Descendants glows with maturity and assurance. It's far from the electric bite of 2002's About Schmidt or 1999's Election's yelps against authority. Rather, it's a primer on passivity: when not to act, how to give in - to grief, or abuse, or betrayal. It's also frequently very funny.
Clooney plays Matt King - a name doubtless chosen carefully by Kaui Hart Hemmings, on whose novel this is based, but which now inexorably brings to mind Peep Show's Super Hans. He's a minted landowner in Hawaii, the trustee of a swath of paradisal coast passed down by his ancestors, which is in the process of being flogged to a developer. Matt works as a local lawyer, a decent, even dull guy, with two daughters and a wife who we see ambulatory only in the opening shot. For the rest she's comatose in a hospital bed, felled by a water-skiing accident. (Payne is bracingly frank about what can happen to a face - the cheeks, the lips, the skin - after a few weeks unconscious.)
For a spell, Matt makes a decent play of trying to keep afloat and handle the children - 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), just mischievous, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), more worrying. But that changes when he learns his wife was having an affair at the time of her accident. Cue a stealth reinvention, plus creeping revelations about the meaning of family, and inheritance.
Clooney is tremendous here, even better perhaps than in his own film, The Ides of March, currently joining this one on the festival circuit. As the Coen brothers exploited to good effect in Burn After Reading, he is eager to play the fool (check out his slapstick jogging), yet here he clings tightly to his dignity while he's doing it. Both children are terrifically good, likewise Nick Krause, who steals a handful of scenes as Sid, Alexandra's goofy friend who gradually emerges as cannier than your average stoner surfer.
At times, the script feels a little too on the button with its snack-pack of metaphors. There's a scene in which Matt likens the islands around Hawaii to a family: distant yet clustered, "always drifting slowly apart". Compared to say, the likes of Joanna Hogg, whose Archipelago tackled similar subjects earlier this year, these moments can leave Payne looking like Michael Bay. At times the pace sags, and the loose ends are either dropped out of view or too stiffly gift-wrapped.
Still, The Descendants, if not quite the Oscar sucker-punch many anticipated, is a drama of unusual nuance. It lingers, spawns thoughts, connections, as a great film ought. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another seven years for the next one.
By Catherine Shoard